Unlike many other restaurant owners, Chef Edward Lee was not surprised about Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear’s mandate to shutter dining rooms again. After seeing what was happening in cities like Chicago, Portland, Oregon, and Philadelphia, he said he knew it was bound to happen at some point.
But while it wasn’t a surprise, it didn’t make it any less heartbreaking.
“I mean, this is awful,” said Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia and Whiskey Dry. “Two weeks ago, we have a record breaking week financially, in terms of how much money we’ve made since the original shutdown in March. We closed down in March, we opened in June and we’ve been fighting very, very hard to restructure and get back our customers.
“We just had a record week, so we were feeling really good about things. But obviously, this is going to really, really hurt.”
Lee said while he doesn’t always agree with some of the decisions, he does think Gov. Beshear has shown leadership, consistency and needed sternness. During a call with Gov. Beshear’s office early this week, Lee said he expressed interest in using his restaurants and others to help slow the spread.
Restaurants have the unique opportunity to create safe and controlled environments for people to get out of the house, Lee argues, which people are doing anyways in unmonitored ways. When restaurants close, Lee said people turn to outdoor and indoor parties for entertainment.
“It’s important to realize that the narrative right now is that restaurants are spreading Covid-19, and I think we need to change the narrative to say that restaurants can actually help bring Covid-19 numbers down,” he said. “We want to be an ally, with city and state governments, to help change behaviors and to make sure that we are doing everything we can to help.”
Additionally, Lee said there’s no scientific data that reflects restaurants and indoor dining are contributing to the spread of Covid-19, outside of a recently-release predictions model based off of mobile phone data.
610 Magnolia is one of two dozen Louisville restaurants that have joined the Responsible Bar and Restaurant Coalition. The coalition, established in August, has been tracking indoor and outdoor guests, staffing levels and positive Covid-19 cases. Since August, only seven cases of Covid-19 have been identified at those 24 establishments, which served about 130,000 people over the past three and a half months.
“Our belief is, if you follow the rules, if you do everything you can and you take it very seriously, we believe that restaurants are not the place where Covid-19 spreads,” Lee said. “I think this second shutdown is really a wake up call. It’s a wake up call for people, it’s a wake up call for restaurants — it’s a wake up call for all of us just to keep digging in and doing better. Everyone’s exhausted, everyone’s tired, but we have to keep doing better.”
I asked Lee for his thoughts on the $40 million relief fund that is being created for Kentucky’s independent restaurants. He said $10,000 or $20,000 would have helped several restaurants at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, but now, not so much.
“Restaurants are in a place right now where there is such a disadvantage — we’re all in so much debt,” Lee said. “Ten thousand dollars is, quite frankly, a drop in the bucket.”